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Stephen Sondheim: A Little Priest

It was not consciously planned, but the songs I chose to start and end this week are both idealistic.  By contrast, today’s pick involves serial murder and cannibalism.

For those who don’t know: Sweeney Todd is a vengeful barber who intends to slit the throat of a powerful judge.  Already, Sweeney has killed a rival barber who jeopardized that plan. (There’s much more to it, but this is all you need to understand today’s song.) Nellie Lovett sells meat pies and business is terrible.  She has befriended Sweeney and given him a room above her shop.  (Again, much more to it, but…)

They need to dispose of the dead man’s body.

In its ghoulish way the song is — if you’ll forgive me — delicious.  The driving waltz, the characters’ delight in their scheme, the endlessly inventive lyric, and the listener’s eager anticipation for the next joke give the scene tremendous energy.  And I have never thought of shepherd’s pie the same way again.

I’m linking to the original Broadway cast album (Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett; Len Cariou as Sweeney) so you can concentrate on the words.

Sondheim – “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd (1979)

The entire show — with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn — was broadcast on PBS in 1982. The intro to “A Little Priest” starts at 1:12:30.


Sondheim: Epiphany from Sweeney Todd

I’m a huge Sondheim fan. When I was 12, my father took me to a preview on Broadway of Sweeney Todd starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. He told me this was a new musical by Sondheim and that it was a masterpiece—Sondheim’s best yet. (I already loved Company and A Little Night Music, thanks to records around the house and a dinner theatre my parents took us to). He prepared me by sitting me down and reading through the entire libretto while listening to the music (he had gotten ahold of cassettes of the music). We laughed together at the endless puns in “A Little Priest.” But then we saw it live on Broadway. It was utterly terrifying, shocking, funny, dark, beautiful and moving. To this day, any chance I get to see Sweeney—any Sweeney—I’m happy. Though to hear it with a full symphony orchestra is best of all. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestration is so brilliant and huge, and the subject so dark and chilling, that the term “musical” somehow seems too small for what it is. Opera is more like it.

It always seemed a tragedy that no good videos of the original 1979 Sweeney were available. However I just noticed that someone finally published one on YouTube.

I realize a lot of people prefer George Hearn as Sweeney, but Len Cariou, who originated the role, will forever be my favorite. He didn’t overact, he had a unique gravity, he could be quite funny, and his inner rage was palpable.

Here is Cariou singing “Epiphany,” which is when Sweeney vows vengeance on the human race. I think it’s the most intense part of the musical. He even turns on the audience—nothing will stand in his way! A barrage of timpani and brass add to the madness. It ends on a dissonant chord that reminds me of Shostakovich.

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